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Environment (Regulation)

Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an independent regulatory body to monitor and enforce the compliance of public bodies with climate and environmental requirements and targets; to make provision for associated sanctions; to require the regulatory body to assess the environmental effects of potential trade agreements; to make provision about environmental standards, including in relation to animal welfare; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing the Bill because the UK is without meaningful environmental regulation and without any kind of independent environmental regulator. Having left the EU and having promised four years ago to introduce legislation to provide the UK with its own independent regulator, the Government continue to fail to meet that promise. Unregulated and unpoliced, our standards of biodiversity, air quality and animal welfare need to be protected or the Government will allow them to be eroded.

Politicians on all sides have a habit of saying that British farming is the best in the world. That claim happens to be true, but I fear that the Conservative Government do not understand why it is true. We can protect British farming only if we understand it. I am compelled to introduce the Bill, because the Government do not seem to understand it and do not seem to get it.

British farming is the best in the world, mainly for two fundamental reasons: standards and culture: standards, because we have led the development of the world’s most ambitious and comprehensive system of agricultural and environmental regulation alongside our partners on the continent; and culture, because the unit of farming in Britain is the family farm, which has underpinned our reputation for unrivalled care and compassion for livestock, and for a ratio of humans to animals that allows the welfare of those animals to be a priority. Furthermore, the culture of Britain’s family farms is one in which they are not just proud to produce our food but proud to be the stewards of our countryside and environment, to be on the frontline of the fight against climate change and the fight to restore nature. If we lose our world-class regulation and have no effective regulator, and if we allow family farms to be undercut and go to the wall, we fatally undermine British farming and all that is good about it. It is not acceptable for the Government to promise regulation and a regulator, and continually to break that promise, while our farmers are put under increasing pressure and our environment is put at increased risk.

That is why, along with my Liberal Democrat and Alliance colleagues, I am pushing the Bill. There is an urgent need for safeguards to be put in place. We need a regulator that is well resourced, has comprehensive and strong powers, and is completely independent of Government so that it can set and enforce regulation without fear or favour, and have the strength to hold public authorities at all levels to account. We need much more than a body that just points out where the Government are failing. We need an office that can force the Government to comply; an office that can prosecute, and can levy fines and other sanctions to prevent abuse; a watchdog whose bite is as great as its bark. Without powerful, independent regulation or a regulator, we will begin to see more complexities in bureaucracy as food producers seek to comply with traditional, high-quality British standards but simultaneously have to operate with lower production costs as they battle to avoid being undercut by cheap imports.

A huge fear for consumers and farmers alike is that the Government will allow lower quality, cheaper imports into the UK as they seek deals with other countries to provide some compensation for the loss of nearby European markets: countries that do not take care of their animals like we do, which lack animal welfare protections and do not produce food in ways that reduce carbon emissions or take care of the natural environment. Those countries allow their producers to have lower input costs due to those lower standards. Is it right that the UK should have to see an increase in products on our supermarket shelves that have come from inhumane or environmentally irresponsible production methods? Is it right that farmers should be undercut and ruined by those cheaper and morally inferior products? The answer to those questions is absolutely no, yet the Government’s continued failure to step back and allow themselves to be regulated mean that we have no means to ensure that new trade deals do not open the door to food produced in ways that damage the environment, harm animals and put UK farmers out of business.

There is a real fear that the Government will do such deals—perhaps by accident, but quite probably by design. After all, the farming Minister wrote to Conservative MPs a few months ago telling them that if we required imports to meet the same animal welfare and environmental standards as British farmers it would make it very difficult to secure trade deals. In other words, “Please do not tie our hands, because we can only get these trade deals if you allow us to throw British farmers under the bus.” That is why my proposal for a new, powerful and independent regulator is vital to protect British standards and British farmers.

Without a regulator, we will allow the Conservative Government to continue their path of inaction on the natural environment. We see a lack of natural flood protection; loss of British biodiversity at an ever increasing rate; and the tragic, premature deaths of thousands of people every year due to air pollution. In the past five years, this Government have been told by multiple court systems that they need to do much more to tackle the toxic levels of air pollution in this country. Their 2017 national action plan on air pollution was deemed unlawful by the UK High Court, as it was simply not strong enough to enforce change among local authorities. This year, in a case started before we left the EU, the European Court of Justice found this Government to have “systematically and persistently” breached air pollution limits. Without an independent regulator with the teeth to hold our Government to account, they will be even less accountable for their failures to tackle these ecological and human crises. The lack of action from the Conservatives should not be left to the court systems to sort out. It should be dealt with directly by an independent body, just as the Government have promised.

Our lack of environmental protections extend beyond air quality and into the quality of nature in the UK. We are already living in the most nature-depleted country on the planet. Only 14% of our waterways are in good condition, and more than 40% of native species are in decline. This is an embarrassment for us all. We are in the run-up to COP26, and at the moment our likely message to other countries will have to be, “Do as we say but not as we do.” We cannot set a good example when the Government are threatening the livelihoods of farmers across the UK with a lack of regulation on animal welfare and other standards.

The Government are compounding that error by their stubborn and penny-pinching approach to the transition from the basic farm payment scheme to the new environmental land management scheme. The Government insist on forcing many family farms to accept a 50% cut in their income, with no immediate replacement. This plan will inevitably put hundreds of family farms out of business. This matters because without farmers we have no partners to deliver natural flood prevention schemes, to enhance biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and to maintain the stunning landscapes that underpin the tourism economy in places such as the lakes and the dales. This stubborn penny-pinching goes hand in hand with the Government’s failure to ensure a powerful independent regulator. Both those failures seem certain to contribute to undermining British farming and our natural environment, unless we act.

Today, I am giving Parliament the opportunity to act. This Bill aims to unite town and country in favour of a new deal for our environment that values British farmers and enshrines British values. How can we say that we are proud of our animal welfare standards, our environmental protections, and the quality of British farming if we then are happy to sell them out to the highest bidder with the lowest regulation? We need an environmental regulator, as the Government have promised. Given that the Government have failed to deliver that promise, I stand here to deliver it for them. For the good of our farmers and our environment, there is no more time to lose.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tim Farron, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Wendy Chamberlain, Daisy Cooper, Ed Davey, Stephen Farry, Wera Hobhouse, Christine Jardine, Layla Moran, Sarah Olney, Jamie Stone and Munira Wilson present the Bill.

Tim Farron accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 297).